Prison Study Details an Unexpected Success Story

Prof's Research Shows Integration Efforts in Texas Penitentiaries Defied Skeptics

Dec. 3, 2009

Among the people considered experts, few had any hope it would work. They foretold a bloody disaster, a prison version of Armageddon.

But when Texas finally surrendered to court orders and began aggressively integrating its prison cells in 1991, the results surprised just about everyone. Prisoners of different races began living together and getting along, with only rare instances of violent confrontation.

Dr. Jim Marquart

Dr. James Marquart

“It’s still unbelievable to me,” said Dr. James Marquart, associate provost and professor of criminology in UT Dallas’ School of Economic, Political and Policy Sciences. “What happened appears to be the exact opposite of what we expected to happen.”

Marquart is co-author of a new book about the desegregation effort, First Available Cell, published by The University of Texas Press.

Federal courts in 1964 ordered the integration of state prisons, but officials in Texas and other states fought the idea every step of the way. With its long history of racial tension and violence, Texas did not appear to be the best place to try out a new system of forced prison integration.

“Prisoners figured out pretty quickly that, if they started a fight with their new cellmate, somebody was likely to get badly hurt. So they learned to get along.”

Dr. James Marquart

Officials gradually relented and allowed integration of communal areas of prisons, then gave in and brought white, black and Hispanic prisoners together within the same cell blocks. But they pushed back hard when it came to the idea of integrating individual prison cells. They feared constant and brutal violence among cellmates of different races.

Marquart and his co-author, Chad Trulson, associate professor of criminal justice at the University of North Texas, took an in-depth look at records related to race-related violence before and after the integration of cells. The story told by the numbers surprised Marquart, who observed the first stages of desegregation as a graduate student in the early 1980s.

Comparing the integration program to similar efforts that took place in the U.S. military and public schools – which also drew strong initial opposition – Marquart said the Texas prison system demonstrated once again that “racial experiments can be brought about with little violence.”

The statistics indicate the rate of intra-race violence is now actually higher than inter-race violence.

“When you’re in a cell together, it’s a very confined space,” Marquart said. “Prisoners figured out pretty quickly that, if they started a fight with their new cellmate, somebody was likely to get badly hurt. So they learned to get along.”

Texas tries to match up prisoners according to prisoners’ security- and health-related needs. Wardens might consider inmates’ size, level of sophistication, ability to adapt. But they cannot consider race as a primary determining factor in assigning cells. They must put prisoners in the “first available cell” whenever possible, Marquart said.

The state has developed a system for screening potential problem prisoners. If officials predict a prisoner would be a danger to a cellmate of a different race, that prisoner is moved to a high-security section of the facility. They have less freedom and less opportunity for activities. Prisoners, therefore, have a strong incentive to get along with individuals of all races and continue living in the general prison population. Nine out of 10 prisoners is categorized as compatible with cellmates of any race.

Prison violence has increased steadily in recent decades, partly because of the expansion of prison gangs, many of whom are associated with a particular race or ethnic group. Prisons are like society as a whole, and people of similar backgrounds tend to gravitate toward each other socially, Marquart said. But most prisoners seem to be able to live side by side peacefully with individuals of a different race.

While it’s difficult to link the prison desegregation to any changes in society outside the walls, Marquart noted that reports of racially motivated hate crimes have decreased in Texas in recent years. These crimes now are committed at a lower rate here than in states such as California and Pennsylvania. He is considering investigating whether a connection exists.

California, which fought integration of its cells much the way Texas did, now is being forced to go forward. California officials are studying the Texas success story and using it as a model. Marquart said California faces even more daunting challenges than Texas did because of entrenched gang affiliations.

“By all accounts, this level of race neutrality has been achieved in the Texas prison system – surely the most unlikely place.”

Marquart and Trulson

Alluding to Martin Luther King’s dream of a society in which people are judged by their character instead of their skin color, Marquart pointed out irony in the fact that Texas prisons seem to be ahead of the curve when it comes to realizing this vision.

“By all accounts, this level of race neutrality has been achieved in the Texas prison system – surely the most unlikely place,” Marquart and Trulson wrote in the conclusion of their book.


Media Contact: Emily Martinez, UT Dallas, (972) 883-4335, emily.martinez@utdallas.edu
or the Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, newscenter@utdallas.edu

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Book jacket   Dr. James Marquart's book describes how Texas' experiment in prison desegregation was carried out without widespread problems.

 

The state relented and allowed integration of communal areas of prisons but initially resisted the idea of integrating individual prison cells.  

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